By Bill Mefford
After reading donald trump’s speech before Congress on Tuesday I was struck by how religiously nationalistic it was. While the TV pundits bent over backwards to applaud trump simply because he was able to read someone else’s speech off of a teleprompter and not insult 50% of the country for one hour out of the week, I was deeply troubled by what he actually said.
His repeated focus on “America first” is a form of nationalism that is deadly as he conflates refugees with terrorism (and with no proof for such a claim either), and he seems obsessed with how immigrants are only coming to this country to steal “our” jobs, rape “our” women, and kill “our” kids, as seen in the creation of a new government agency dedicated to highlighting the “damage” immigrants are apparently causing this country despite all evidence to the contrary. Rather than seeing the isolated incidents of immigrant violence as outliers, which is what immigrant violence is in fact, trump’s over-exaggerated picture paints an innocent America without flaw while migrants and others (like the media) are determined to destroy us.
Nationalistic idolatry is what feeds his base. I am not sure trump tapped into peoples’ anger as much as he fed their hope to worship something bigger than themselves. And though this kind of nationalistic idolatry has been around forever, trump’s brand is particularly dangerous because he identifies specific groups of people as enemies of the nation, namely migrants, Muslims, and anyone who questions him or disagrees with him.
But even more than critiquing trump, I am concerned by the lack of response to his speech from the church. Fully two days after the speech, as far as I could see, there was no response from any of the so-called “liberal” church institutions critiquing the danger of nationalism that pervades this administration. No so-called progressive leader called out trump, or even more, called out the church for allowing nationalism to go unchecked for years. Nationalism has become the acceptable sin. It is acceptable because we like it; it makes us feel special and unique and even powerful. It always has.
Look at the beginning of Acts. Before Jesus ascends to Heaven he makes a stop with his old running buddies, the disciples, and spends 40 days teaching them about the Kingdom of God. Think about that. The disciples get a 40 day tutorial on the Kingdom of God with the freshly risen Messiah of the world to prepare them for leadership. This is seminary as it should be, right?
So, after watching Jesus teach and lead for several years and perform all kinds of miracles while repeatedly tearing apart all kinds of socially and religiously-instituted barriers, including ones that previously separated Israel from other races and ethnicities, after witnessing the death and resurrection of their leader, after receiving a 40 day tutorial on the Kingdom of God from the very incarnation of the Kingdom of God, here is their last question to Jesus: “Lord, is this the time when you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
I always have to read that question twice even though I have read that verse dozens of times. Have they not been listening? The Kingdom of God is NOT about one specific nation’s greatness! God’s Kingdom is for the whole world! But let’s not be deceived. The disciples’ focus is not about Israel’s greatness. Nationalism never is. Nationalism is simply the corporate expression of individual selfishness and self-aggrandizement. Their question is about their own greatness and their own power.
We all know the utter foolishness of trump and the very real way he seems to revel in creating misery for others. But what I find particularly troubling – reprehensible even – is how unchecked his call for nationalism is among his followers, the media, and especially the church. Again, no church institution or progressive leader I have seen has called for him or his followers or the church for that matter to repent of this brand of destructive nationalism that will create harm for immigrants, refugees, and nations throughout the world that do not do what we want them to do for our own benefit. This is triumphalism and nationalism and it is ugly and dangerous.
Now, people will tell me that all nations have pride and I am sure many have the same form of nationalism. Perhaps, but not all nations have the same power to inflict harm on so many vulnerable people. Not all nations have a history of inflicting such tremendous harm on other countries like we have seen the United States do in countries like Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, and so many others. Further, aren’t we called to follow the example set by Jesus the Advocate and redemptively utilize our access to resources to gain that same access to those same resources for those whose access has been restricted or denied? This is the essence of biblical advocacy and our faithfulness doesn’t depend on others doing this for us or reciprocating. So, don’t give me this “all nations are nationalistic” crap. It doesn’t wash.
The church has failed its followers. We have not responded to trump’s supporters the way Jesus responded to his disciples when they asked their inane question. Without any anger or harsh rebuke, this is what Jesus said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or period that God has set by God’s own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus’ words show donald trump could not be more wrong (what else is new?). Nationalism does not bring about transformative power for ourselves or for others. Witnessing to God’s love for all the world and serving all people by sharing our resources freely and inclusively brings transformative power. While trump’s dark nationalism scratches itchy ears and makes television punditry perversely happy because he quit talking about how much he hates them for one hour out of the week, trump showed how weak he is as a leader and how weak we are as a nation. A nation that must force it’s will onto others in order to find security and pride is perilously fragile. Nationalism shows a moral and spiritual bankruptcy that will never be filled no matter or how triumphalistic we might become.
And shame on the church for becoming so comfortable with nationalism that we cannot recognize this sin for what it is and call it out and call on the church to repent. We have protested against the stupid and reckless policies and words of President Haman, but I believe our faithfulness will be determined by our allegiance to the Kingdom of God over and above rivaling loyalties, including to our own nation.
At this point, we have largely failed.
And this is why our own liberation rests in our #RESISTANCE.